Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Esperanza - A Ray of Hope

We have good news and bad news.

The bad news:
The political situation in Nicaragua has declined since Jeff left in April, with violence erupting in protests in cities around the country. We wish our projet to remain politically neutral, so we encourage you to do your own reading on the situation. 

Ometepe Island, however, is living up to its nickname, Oasis de Paz (oasis of peace), and has had no major violence and only a few, mostly peaceful protests. There are still huge impacts on the island, however, such as fuel and food shortages, commerce slowing to a halt, and tourism all but drying up. The tour guides we work with are used to not having 100% reliable income, but many are having real trouble with a complete lack of tours. Some consider migrating to Costa Rica as tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have done already. Keep in mind that Nicaragua’s population is 6 million normally, so current refugee numbers are as if over a million people were to flee US – and that is just to one country. Many other countries are seeing refugee applications from Nicaragua, including Panama, Mexico, and the US.

So what do we do? How can we help? Nicaragua has in its constitution (Article 27) that foreigners may not interfere in Nicaraguan politics. A quick review of Nicaraguan history quickly explains why that might be. Foreign meddling, most especially by the United States, has caused many problems for the Nicaraguan people. Political interference is really not appropriate. But if citizens have to leave the country due to violence or resulting economic distress, who will be there to rebuild?

The good news:

Nicaraguans have done this before in living memory, and are working hard to keep their lives on track. Their resilience is inspiring.

We had arranged for three guides to keep the resource center open to the public three days a week after Jeff left, paying them a general worker’s day wage to do so (a guide can earn much more in a day, but then has to hustle for business a lot of the time – less secure, but potentially more money). Due to tourist high season coming around during this time, we spread the work out so three people would work one day a week each. They are encouraged to do whatever community outreach they feel appropriate, using the community center as a base.

Now that they have so much time on their hands since there are no tourists to guide, they have started more community outreach than any of us anticipated happening. They are providing English lessons, computer services, environmental education, art classes, and the like – all on their own time and free to the community.

People are flocking to the center, especially children but even adults.

They are inviting in school classes to introduce local kids (and therefore their families) to what is available in the center.

And they’re taking students out for environmental education trips in their backyards.

Beyond our resource center, they’re lending equipment we brought down to do research into local endangered species, just as we intended. Shout out to LOCOs (Loreros Observando Conservando Ometepe), who study the Amazonian yellow-naped parrot, and a group of generous birders in Minnesota who donated the binoculars!

What we can do is to continue supporting these amazing folks in their community work. We have increased the open hours of the resource center to five days a week. We are hoping to pay folks for more hours of instruction for community workshops. They refuse to give up hope, and so do we. We have grant money from New England Biolabs Foundation and hope to renew that grant for next year, as well as donations from wonderful friends and family. If you have the means, please consider donating to help keep our resource center open and wages paid to keep these amazing people working. You can find donation options at our website, (or more directly here).

With all the chaos of the news, I have found hope in our work with the good folks of Ometepe. A huge thanks to Elieth Alvarez who manages our books and timesheets on top of giving English classes and keeping the center open, and to Arlin Hernandez, Edgard Condena, Ramon Ivan H.G., and Diego Hernandez for their hard work and infinite patience.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A look back on Winter of 2017-2018

It has been 6 months since Guias Unidos came back to Nicaragua as a project of Earth Island Institute, our first time abroad as part of a registered nonprofit organization. Time has flown by so quickly that we want to look back and answer the question, “what have we accomplished?”

Unifying resources
Our mission is to inspire community based, conservation-minded tourism, by unifying local and international expertise and resources. Here are a few highlights of how we did this:

Trever, a National Park Ranger from the USA, volunteered with us for 5 months (read his blog post here). Trever spent his first couple months primarily taking Spanish classes. He worked on Trail projects and helped with general needs such as training and renovating our Resource Center. Here we are working with the guides on a beach trash pickup,
A truck full of trash is the result of a community trash pickup along the beaches of Santa Cruz.

And here’s Trever with local guide Yilmer building a new trail on Volcan Maderas National Park,
Trever and Yilmer forge a new trail through the cloud forest.

and being the photographer on a field trip with the kids.
Trever manages multiple cameras while photographing the field trip.

Chelsea, a former park ranger and currently a master’s student with University of Montana, spent January partnering with us in developing educational tools and training. In addition to organizing a geology hike up Volcan Concepcion,
Chelsea enjoys the view near the top of Concepcion.

she helped teach summer camp with Peace Corps.
Chelsea collects trash with kids from Balgue, Ometepe. That's Kari from Peace Corps photobombing in the background!

Chelsea set up a fantastic training trip to visit Volcan Masaya National Park, to learn more about local geology at the park’s museum and to look into the active volcano at nighttime: 
Looking into the fiery pit of Volcan Masaya at nighttime

She then hosted a geology training session. Here you can see Chelsea and Trever tag-teaming the training.
Chelsea and Trever teach a class on geology

Chelsea plans on returning later this year to help develop more educational materials and community education. Chelsea also set us up with a meeting with Victor Vereb, a European geographer who is interested in creating a Geopark on Ometepe.
Victor discusses Geoparks with a group of locals and Guias Unidos' volunteers

On a more local level, Guias Unidos set up an exchange visit with Fundacion Colcibolca at the Mombacho Nature Reserve. The rangers at Volcan Mombacho near Granada have arguably the most developed system of trails and guides in the country. We funded 4 of the Ometepe guides to take a day trip to visit and learn about their training and resources. 
Guias Unidos guides (PUMAs) and Fundacion Colcibolca guides get together on Volcan Mombacho

In exchange, the Mombacho guides took a trip to Ometepe to visit our new Resource Center and take a volcano tour. As the tours on Ometepe take a little longer than those on Mombacho, we hosted our guests for the overnight visit.  

Training guides

In addition to our exchange learning trips and Chelsea’s geology classes, Trever and I were able to organize two classes on interpretation (how to develop engaging tours and presentations). We had a lot of fun in the classes, and we hope to do more. We lost the camera that took these pictures, but if we find a picture, we’ll post it soon. 

Community Education
School “summer vacation” takes place between late November and early February, making our winter season ideal to focus on programs with kids. With our “Nature Libre” campaign (see our December blog post), we raised $1300 for experiential education for kids, with a focus on field trips. With these donations, we were able to rent buses for 3 separate field trips, bringing about 100 kids to the local nature reserve, Charco Verde.
3 very happy groups of kids visiting Charco Verde nature reserve

For most of these kids and the parents who chaperoned, it was not only their first time to Charco Verde, but it was their first educational field trip ever. As promised, we made a video of our trip, in the spirit of the last scene of the movie Nacho Libre:

As these trips cost less than $100 each (less than $3 per kid), we still have funds for more programs. We plan on doing more camps next year, and we are also working with Peace Corps to create a “Junior Ranger” program for kids to learn about nature and go on more field trips.

The highlight of our contribution to community education is our Resource Center and library, which we founded this year. We chose the name PUMA for our center and the group that works there. 
Welcome to Centro PUMA!

Although there are no pumas who live on the island, they are a species that spans the entire Americas, representing our unity across borders. Puma also stands for Protectores Unidos por el Medio Ambiente, or protectors united through the environment. As I and all of the USA volunteers are gone for the summer, a group of PUMAs is operating regular public hours of the "Centro PUMA" library.
Some of the PUMAs sport their new t-shirts
In addition to being open to the public 3 days per week, Centro PUMA has hosted events, such as story time in partnership with Peace Corps Nicaragua. In one memorable event, we read “El Lorax” to a group of kids before watching the movie together.
Amanda reads "El Lorax" to piles of snuggling kids

Thanks to donors

Thanks to all the families, friends, and strangers who believed in us and donated over $5000 in cash and needed items to our project this year. This includes a group of generous Minnesota birders who donated 2 suitcases full of (about 20) binoculars to our project. Finally, a huge thanks to New England Biolabs Foundation ( who awarded us a $7000 grant that has made the majority of our work possible this year. 
Kids have fun with the donated binoculars on their field trip

A word about the political situation in Nicaragua:

It was a coincidence that I (Jeff) happened to fly out right as political unrest spread across the nation, but it will give us some time to observe developments from a distance. Protesters started in mid-April with a demonstration against social security reforms, but soon grew in numbers to protest against the government. In the past month, there have been dozens of deaths as protesters clashed against counter protesters and shots were fired into crowds. Many people fear the beginning of a difficult time in Nicaragua. Since the protests began the unrest has continued. We understand that the situation is complicated, but we hope that Nicaragua can continue find a peaceful resolution. In the meantime, we plan on continuing with our project, but we intend to proceed with caution, especially as pertains to our volunteers. For those of you interested in volunteering, please keep in touch with us as we assess the developing situation.
April 23 march (Reuters photo)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A tour of our new Resource Center

One of our goals for this year was to establish a central office that can be used as a learning center, classroom, library, visitor center, and housing for our volunteer directors. It's been a long journey and it's not done - but we've made enough progress over the past 5 months that it's time for a virtual tour of our Resource Center.

In December we located a rental house available that is just a block from Altagracia's central park and the main bus station in town. It is a large house with a gigantic plantain orchard out back, but it needed a lot of work. We spent the next 3 months cleaning up hurricane debris and planting a garden, fighting termites, fixing walls, repairing doors, furnishing, and scraping endless expanses of flaking paint. Sometimes neighbor kids would come and help us out.
Look at that pile of sticks in the left-hand corner and guess what it might be for!

After months of removing paint, our guide partners came over for a work party, and we got most of the main room painted in one day.

Kate and the kids pose in front of the newly decorated wall.

We decided to make our main-room library shelving and furniture out of scrap wood from the hurricane, which saved us money but required a huge amount of work. Some new friends from CONNACT global helped us for a day of sanding.

And so our main room was transformed into a mini library.

The mountains painted on both sides of the room are on the same sides as their corresponding volcanoes on the island: Concepcion (below) and Maderas (above). Below is the kid's section of the library with kids books in Spanish and English, crafts, games, and a high throne. Recognize the bench we were sanding before?

With the help of Amanda from Peace Corps, our library was available for our first storytime event with local kids.

Although we have not officially opened with regular business hours, we have hosted test openings on a few random days. The neighbor kids quickly find out and enjoy reading books and doing crafts in the kids section. Yes, they do sit on the throne!

After months of clearing debris out of the garden, we landscaped around a stubborn tree stump and added a large trellis. A line of young passion fruit vines line the left side of the trellis, and we hope that they will provide shade and lots of fruit within the next year or so.

We also fenced in a smaller garden to keep neighborhood chickens away from the more delicate edible plants and seedlings. We have a bunch of herbs and greens planted, and there is still more room for some rows of veggies or other fun foods.

Back to inside: the kitchen was the first room we furnished. It may look humble, but it's quite a luxury by Ometepe standards.

Our office space is still developing in the room between the kitchen and library, but we finally have a desk and shelving for the guide books and materials.

On the other side of the office is the door to the bedroom. We added a deadbolt to the door for privacy and security, and we also raised the wall to the ceiling--before, you could climb over the wall into the bedroom (look at the first picture of the blog to see the same type of half wall). An open wall is fine if it's in a private house, but being part of a public office and library, the bedroom needed to be fully closed.

The bedroom may not be large, but it has everything a bedroom needs. This enables us to include housing for our volunteer directors or project managers.

 We're still working on the last room. We've fixed the doors and added a giant cot that can be stowed in the new storage closet. It still definitely needs to be painted. This extra room off to the side can be a reading room for the library, a classroom, and a temporary bedroom for guests. It's currently being used as a guest bedroom.

Renovating the Resource Center has taken a large amount of the time this season in Nicaragua. We hope that it will require a lot less work next year and will enable us to focus on and develop our other projects. We are very encouraged by the positive attention our library has earned with the neighbors, and we hope that it also appeals as much as a center for learning and administering our project.

Update: As of April 20th, we have finished all of our major painting and renovating of the Center, which we are calling Centro PUMA for our crew, the "Protectores Unidos por el Medio Ambiente", or the "United Protectors of the Environment." Our last touch on the center before inaugurating it was to paint the outside and add signs. Here's the before and after:

Now come visit us at Centro PUMA on Ometepe!

Monday, April 2, 2018

Volunteer opportunity!

We are looking for a volunteer for sometime between May and September 2018 - could it be you?

We need someone to coordinate our program in Altagracia for at least 10 weeks. This position's main responsibilities are to staff and maintain the Resource Center, communicate and organize programs with our partner organizations on the island, and keep track of the finances. You will have your own secure room in the Center, with wifi, kitchen, and garden. You must speak English and Spanish, and have basic internet and office computer skills.

Contact us for details! guiasunidosnicaragua at gmail dot com -

Para el invierno de 2018 (Mayo hasta Septiembre, calendario flexible pero por favor trabaja a lo menos 2.5 meses), quiserimos a alguien para coordinar la programa en Altagracia. Necesita mantener y dotar de personal el Centro de Recursos, comunicar y organizar programas con organizaciones asociadas, y dirigir las finanzas. Vivirá en su propio cuarto seguro en el Centro, con wifi y una cocina y jardin. Necesita hablar español y ingles, y saber cómo utilizar las computadoras.
Contactarnos por detalles! guiasunidosnicaragua arroba gmail punto com -

Friday, January 26, 2018

Living on Ometepe

Hey everyone! My name is Trever and I am a new volunteer here at Guias Unidos. I met Jeff and Kate as an SCA intern in 2015 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and I returned to THRO for my first official NPS gig the following summer. I spent the summer of 2017 working as a Ranger in Kings Canyon National Park in California (pictured above). This is my first ever blog post, but over the next few months I want to explain what I am doing for Guias Unidos as well as some of the everyday life here in Nicaragua.

 For those of you who are new, Ometepe Island is the frontline of our Guias Unidos work. Ometepe is located inside of the large Lake Nicaragua and is comprised of two different volcanos connected by a thin strip of land called an isthmus. The volcano on the left, Conception, is still active and Maderas to the right is a dormant volcano. The two make life on the island very interesting! This photo was taken from a ferry on its way to Moyogolpa, the only port currently active on the Island.
My main goals here are to help with the education of the local guides and to work on diffrent trail projects around the island. The Guias Unidos work takes us all over the Island, even to the top of the volcanoes! The picture here was taken during the hike up Conception. Which is a very steep scramble up with a wonderful views of Maderas along the way. The plant life on Conception is much less forested than Maderas, which is covered with trees all the way up, and into the volcano. So this view is only one way. 
 The view at the top of Conception are awesome but also a little scary. Here Chelsea poses at the top of Conception with a view of Maderas in the background. The hike back down the volcano seemed longer than I remembered it being on the way up but it did have a neat surprise! A little switch in the trails on the way down leads to a kilometer of sand that allows you to skip/jump/ski down the side of the mountain. 10/10 I would definitely recommend the going down the sand trail.
 Si a la Vida in English means Yes to Life. It’s an organization that works with local children and runs a farm that I as well as some of the other volunteers stay at. It has puppies, a kitchen, volcanic views and a cat, that we named Senior Gato, or for our English speakers: Mr. Cat. The farm is cold showers only though.
 Most of the land at the farm is used to grow plantains, which are a very starchy relative of the banana. So we got more plantains than we know what to do with. Here we get a view of conception volcano over the farms plantain field. The farm also has chickens and cattle occasionally running about.
 This photo is a little bit of a sneak peek into the daily life here at the farm. Enrique, one of the farm workers, clears brush while a Magpie Jay fly’s overhead. It’s generally calm and pretty here at Si a la Vida.
 ·         Speaking of Magpie Jays they are all over Ometepe and they are totally gorgeous. The locals treat them like a nuisance. The problems they have given me so far is that they seem to be a little camera shy.
 About a kilometer and a half from the farm is the Altagracia port. The ferries that used to bring people to the port stopped coming several years ago when lake levels were to low. The port still gets some usage by fishing boats and seems to be a hangout for some of the locals.
 Here a man fishes at the pier during the sunset. We didn’t see him get anything big but he kept going for the whole hour that we were there.
·    I have been here for almost 2 months now and I have been pleasantly surprised by how welcoming most of the Nicaraguan people have been. This place offers so much to do, not only with working with the environmental aspects, but with the people as well. I am looking forward to my next few months here on Ometepe and the work it will bring. One thing is for sure though, this view will never get old.